OAKLAND -- A year after facing a lifetime in prison for killing an unarmed BART passenger, former transit police Officer Johannes Mehserle will be released from jail in a couple of weeks.
With credits for time served and the leniency of a Los Angeles County judge, Mehserle will be set free after serving 11 months of a two-year sentence issued after the 29-year-old was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the killing of Hayward resident Oscar Grant III.
Mehserle's release from Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail, most likely in the middle of June, should not come as a surprise because the date was determined when Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry declined last year to issue a harsher penalty.
For Grant's family, the release is a bitter reminder of the tragedy that occurred in the early hours of Jan. 1, 2009, and how, in their minds, the criminal justice system failed. "We really don't feel like there has been accountability for his actions," said Cephus Johnson, Grant's uncle and a family spokesman. "We were totally let down by the judicial system."
For Mehserle, being freed from jail offers a chance to begin anew but not in the profession he had chosen when he became a BART police officer more than three years ago. And while Mehserle's release closes a chapter in the highly publicized saga, the story of Grant's death and its implications will continue for years as both a federal civil suit and an appeal of Mehserle's conviction remain active in the courts.
"Things are still unsettled," said Michael Rains, Mehserle's defense attorney. "(Mehserle) would just as soon fade into oblivion, find a job, support himself and his family and do so without fanfare."
Mehserle was charged with murder for killing Grant on the Fruitvale BART station platform in Oakland. The killing made national headlines and sparked several destructive demonstrations after videos captured by BART passengers recorded the shooting.
The videos showed an unarmed Grant being shot in the back as he lay prone on the station platform with another BART police officer holding him down.
Mehserle refused to speak to investigators immediately after the killing and eventually was charged with murder by now-retired Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff.
Publicity surrounding the shooting and the frequent protests in downtown Oakland forced a relocation of the trial to Los Angeles, where Mehserle testified in his own defense, saying the shooting was an accident caused when he mistook his gun for his Taser.
A jury appeared to believe Mehserle, finding him guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
That verdict and a decision made by Perry during a sentencing hearing to throw out a complicated gun enhancement charge reduced Mehserle's possible term in jail from 25 years to life to two years.
It also angered Grant's family members, who continue to believe Mehserle purposely killed Grant and that he has not paid enough for the crime.
"The sentencing was a slap in the face," Johnson said. "We are hurt and angry."
Johnson said Grant's family is also upset because, in their view, Mehserle never apologized for the killing.
Although Mehserle released a written apology to the media after his conviction, Johnson said Grant's family viewed the action as a stunt rather than a sincere signal of remorse.
"There has not even been an apology," Johnson said. "While he is sitting in jail, he never wrote a letter to the family."
Rains said his client would like to reach out the Grant family but, at this point, is avoiding communication because of the ongoing federal civil litigation. "I think he will (reach out to the Grant family) once that civil case is resolved," Rains said.
In the meantime, Rains said Mehserle will seek a job in either sales or business and remain in California for the "short term."
Once released from jail, Mehserle will be on parole and Rains said he will have to work with his parole officer on the details of where he can live.
For Grant's family, the only hope for justice is winning the federal civil suit and persuading the U.S. Justice Department to file federal criminal charges against Mehserle and other BART police officers who were at the scene of the killing.
The Justice Department had said it was investigating the killing but has never issued a statement regarding the results of that investigation. Phone calls to the department were not returned.
"Right now, we are grasping to hope that the Department of Justice will pick this case up," Johnson said. "When we finally get through the civil case and the Department of Justice decision, at that time, we will truly know how we really feel."
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